Intersectionality has become the newest of the diversity and inclusion buzzwords and, in the process, its roots have become, at best, diluted, or worst, forgotten.
As a reminder, intersectionality was first coined in the 80’s by Kimberle Crenshaw to explain the unique experience of black women, navigating the world at the intersection of racism and sexism.
In her words, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things. The issue is that intersectionality can get used as a blanket term to mean, “Well, it’s complicated.” Sometimes, “It’s complicated” is an excuse not to do anything.”
We spoke with Wade Davis, a thought leader, public speaker, and consultant on gender, race, and orientation equality, to examine intersectionality, how it plays out in the workplace and ways to ensure that it doesn’t become “an excuse to do nothing.”
DBP: To start, can you share how you navigate your own personal intersectionality and what that looks like day to day?
WD: Being a black man and a gay man, it means that there are multiple parts of my identity that I have to think about in terms of how other people are going to treat me because of them. I can “hide” my sexual orientation if I choose to, but I can’t hide my blackness, so there is a part of me that is constantly aware of the fact that people will react to me and treat me differently because of the multiple identities I hold.
The best way to think about for me is that I am always walking through the world knowing that these identities are never going to be privileged. Almost as if, I should be ashamed of some of my identities. I feel like I am constantly watched but also like I constantly have to watch others watch me.
And it is sitting at the intersection of being black and gay that makes me hyper-aware that although the myths and stereotypes about those two identities are not true to me, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t seen as true to others.
All of these things force me to actively remember my own personal value and to practice self-care in order to not find my sense of self value through the eyes of other people. And that is constant work.
DBP: Knowing that there are many people who have to navigate the workplace from a similar place to you, where do we start as D&I practitioners, as colleagues, as leaders, doing the work needed to evolve ourselves as individuals and our workplaces to be more inclusive?
WD: The hardest part of doing inclusion work is moving from being able to articulate these challenges from an intellectual standpoint to a place where we can speak the truth, and ultimately, take action.
For instance, most of us know that all employees walk into the doors with different histories, but some of those histories are wrought with oppression. If I am a white person, I have not grown up with a history that my race was forced upon me. Or if I am heterosexual, I have not grown up with the belief that my sexual orientation is a “choice” or goes against my religion.
And people don’t want to talk about that or, when they do, they feel guilty and often don’t move beyond feeling guilty. Feeling guilty is easy and common yet I don’t believe it has any sustainable and transformative value to anyone.
The hard work is to speak the truth about the ways that we can be acted sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. and then the hardest work is moving to action to unlearn these forms of oppression, understand the multiple impacts and then co-creating solutions to remedy the problems individually and systematically.
If I, as a man, want to stand in solidarity with women, I need to own that I have benefitted from sexism and in many ways have been sexist.
To do that we need to have personal, individual conversations with ourselves and be truthful about who we are and how we have benefitted from systems of oppression.
I’ve started to coach senior executives to do “the work”, to know histories, and what people are walking in the doors with. For instance, if someone makes a comment about a black woman’s hair and a leader is told about it, they will realize that this is historical, that this is not the first time that this has happened to her and that her reaction comes from that place.
Many organizations are organizing “courageous conversations.” Courageous conversations are great, but they can be wrought with guilt. Often we hear, “we’re going to talk about race” but what we really have to talk about is racism. We don’t want to talk about racism because someone is implicated in that.
After you own individually that this bias exists in you, you have to name that publicly. The reason you want to say this publicly is you want people to hold you accountable. The reason I talk about myself as a feminist, for example, is because I want people to hold me accountable.
And these leaders need to be talking about what they are learning publicly. Talk to their teams so that their teams see that this work is important. They need to train their own teams on these issues to prove that they get it.
Lastly, leaders need to put systems of accountability in place and makes these visible.
There is a big disconnect if leaders are not held accountable. We can have all these conversations, but the most important question is what have they learned about themselves. If you can articulate publicly what you have learned about yourself through these conversations, then you are truly being vulnerable, transparent and unafraid of the journey ahead.
DBP: How has the concept of intersectionality been diluted and how do we get back to its roots in order to drive inclusion efforts forward?
WD: People like to throw the word around because they want to relate. “My life isn’t great either. I am a man and an introvert.” This is not to say that other dimensions of diversity don’t have value. But the history of the word speaks to systems of oppression that name people invisible, more specifically black women. And we must stop talking about intersectionality without naming Kimberle Crenshaw and Emma DeGraffenreid because when we don’t name them, we are continuing to make black women and the labor of black women invisible and we must interrogate the hidden reasons that people are doing that and often times it’s intentionally trying to move the conversation away from black women. Now, I know of no laws on the books against introverts. I don’t want to minimize the struggles of introverts in the workplace. But we are talking about systems of oppression that are hundreds of years old.
Also, it speaks to the larger issue of inclusion work being a luxury. Let’s say you are the CEO of the bank and you are going to acquire another bank. You wouldn’t outsource that work to someone else. With D&I we outsource the work to the D&I team. If it doesn’t go well, no one is held accountable. What are the named accountability measures that leaders are held to after two years if nothing happened?
Inclusion work is not thought of as part and parcel to the success of an organization. Leaders all have their talking points but there is no real depth to it. You can speak to what someone else is doing, but can’t talk about what they, as individuals, are doing. What bonuses won’t they get if their top four levels do not reflect the representation of the population?
The reason why, in my opinion, we started to dilute inclusion work is because white men said, I am forgotten in all of this. I am being blamed. They have the power to say that they feel invisible when really, in most cases, they are the largest group at their organization, and the most powerful. They must own that and not be afraid of that fact. And we must be more strategic in how we co-create solutions with white men so the work of inclusion becomes personal to them without re-centering them but still involving them.
DBP: Given the perceived and real racism that exists in the LGBTQ community, and the perceived and real homophobia that exists in the Black community, how do workplaces tackle the specific intersection of being LGBTQ and a person of color?
WD: This is one of the hardest conversations to have.
Historically, one of the beliefs of LGBTQ people of color was that white LGBTQ people would have a better understanding of what oppression feels like because they were gay. But what we found was that there was racism that existed there and many would not own that.
On the flip side, there is a dangerous myth that says black spaces are hyper homophobic and more so than white spaces and that Black folks are not welcoming to the LGBTQ community. There is homophobia in every community but the pervasive narrative was that it was worse in black spaces.
This has caused a lack of trust on both sides. Neither group trusts the other so they segregated themselves and many have yet to self-reflect and take the much-needed risk to have honest conversations to move beyond these mythical histories.
What needs to happen on both sides, is that each group needs to deeply invest in understanding the other and it first needs to be done individually. And it needs to start with the person who is closer to the seat of power, and that is often the white, gay man. Not that both sides don’t have work to do, but the individual closest to “the power” and “the influence” should take the greater risk.
DBP: How do employee resource groups make themselves welcoming to people who sit at this particular intersection?
WD: Black ERGs need to create times that they are talking about the history between both communities. You need to name the fact that there are people who are sitting at the intersection, and acknowledge that. You don’t want to get into the oppression olympics but rather examine how our marginalizations connect. Talk about how sexism and homophobia come together to impact people of color. Instead of talking about how our experiences are divergent, work on a path forward.
The straight men in the person of color ERG need to understand that if LGBTQ and women of color are made visible, they will be as well. Men of color will also benefit, and to believe and trust that is really hard.
LGBTQ folks have to be intentional and name that there is racism in their community, publicly, so the LGBTQ people of color believe and trust the white LGBTQ folks. Once they start talking about it, they then need to talk about the work they are going to do to understand that history, how their work is aligned and a path forward.
The white folks in that group have to use their privilege, because they are closer to those in power and can leverage that position to have these conversations with straight, cisgender white men. They can use what they learned to ensure that the straight white men are part of that conversation and doing that work alongside them.
Gay and straight white men could become accountability partners.
DBP: What are some books that you would suggest people read to begin their individual work to building a more inclusive workplace?
WD: First, I would suggest people read Toni Morrison’s Origin of Others. It articulates how we treat people who we see as different from us. Once we see them as different, we create systems to keep us apart.
After they read this book, they can name one way they have treated someone as the other. How have I in my life treated someone as an ‘other’? What did it do to them, what did it do for me?
If people don’t understand those two things, then they should read it again.
I want to push people to be honest. When you hold up a mirror, they go to guilt and shame. This is not useful. Can’t move forward. You have to go to truth. Then you can get to action.
The next book would be The Bluest Eye, also by Toni Morrison. We all find our value through the eyes of others. What does it mean to find my worth through myself? It is really hard when we live in a social media world, we are all struggling, equating our value through the eyes of someone else and it is hard to find self worth when we are doing that. This is an important step in understanding and taking action toward inclusion.
Lastly, I would want folks to read Janet Mock’s book, Redefining Realness. It really humanizes transgender people. And this is important because often times transgender people are the most marginalized and who people are the most uncomfortable with.
And when reading Janet’s book, we all must push ourselves to see ourselves in her story. If you don’t, then you are not connecting to the humanity of trans people. It’s about self-learning and self-love. And, if you don’t see yourself in Janet’s story, read it again. When we distance ourselves from the stories of another human being, we actually aren’t dehumanizing them, we are dehumanizing ourselves.
Human beings are really not that different. Our fear makes us believe they are different.